AFL planning hubs – or are they cages?


Footballers can’t. So other than not play at all, the only solution is to corral them behind locked doors and high walls, cutting them off from their non-footy life and all other diversions, with only each other for company, for up to eight weeks at a time.

It’s temporary, of course, a one-off – we hope. But it is fair to ask if it is wise. Effectively, it will expect a cohort of fit, energetic young men to swap one form of isolation for another, forgoing everyday normality and the range of human connections that lubricate most of our lives.

We don’t have to imagine how trying this would be: we’re all trying to deal with it right now. Disciplined as Australians have been, most would admit that it’s wearying. We’re missing each other.

Plainly, the AFL’s central committee is agonising over this. Though they tend to be control freaks, they are not into perpetrating unnatural acts. But they are nothing if not there to run a footy competition and balance its books.

Part of the time they are taking is accustomise us to the concept of hubs. The blueprint remains deliberately sketchy. Slowly, the conversation has moved: no longer “can they work?”, but “how can they work?”. In a nutshell, they will work like a circus, rolling out the performers every few days before returning them to their cages.

To date, attention has focused primarily on the medical integrity of hubs. This concern is why so few interlopers will be admitted. When the idea of hubs was first floated, GWS chairman Tony Shepherd was doubtful, saying a hub would be a cruise ship in the making. Just down the road, the Ruby Princess had not yet weighed anchor. It’s gone now, but the qualm remains.

But there is also the wider matter of player welfare. Enough important people in footy believe this to be the burning issue of this era. Either more footballers are feeling stress or admitting to it than previously, but the phenomenon is undeniable.

We can all empathise with the feeling of stress right now. Uncertainty, unemployment, confinement, tedium: all are weighing. It’s why governments are looking for the earliest responsible date to release us, or at least relax the reins.

But footballers might find themselves in another form of captivity. They’ll be doing what they love, and will be well paid for it, but is that a fair trade-off?

Some will find themselves in good form in winning teams, and that will be enough. But for others, the walls will close in. Ask a struggling touring cricketer about the feeling of never being off duty and away from scrutiny.

Publicly, footballers have been lukewarm. In the last couple of days alone, Rory Sloane worried about being separated from his wife and new-born baby and Ed Langdon wondered how many would cope. The AFL Players Association is “open” to the hubs plan, but that’s not the same as embracing it with open arms, which is illegal anyway.

On Monday, St Kilda coach Brett Ratten suggested some players might baulk, and sympathised. That would further compromise an already heavily compromised season. It’s no-one’s fault, but it does make you wonder about priorities.

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